The Greasy Pole: The Rate for the Job

From time-to-time the people who conduct opinion polls go out and ask the Great British Public about which jobs they expect to be done by untrustworthy con-artists. When the percentages are worked out it emerges that among the people who are widely mistrusted when it comes to telling the truth, giving a “fair” deal and meaning what they say are estate agents, used-car salesman—and politicians. There is some ambivalence here, the public don’t vote for people who sell them houses and dangerous cars but they do elect politicians, supposedly to represent their interests and put to rights all manner of tricky problems.

So how do the voters feel about the recent campaign, led by a cross-party group in Westminster, to give MPs a rise—in some cases to double the basic pay of £33,000? In support of this some familiar arguments have been deployed: like MPs can’t live on what they get at present; like the wages of British MPs compare badly with those paid elsewhere: like the low pay of MPs means the most able people are put off a career in politics. And so on.

We say these arguments are “familiar” because they are often used by trade unions when they are negotiating pay deals. Whether they are strong arguments (which in any case does not affect the issue) it is interesting to note how MPs habitually respond when they are used by workers. Almost invariably our parliamentary representatives cake the view that “national interests” must override any merits in a pay claim. That is the history of all the wage restrain policies imposed by both Labour and Tory governments. It is why people who do vital and demanding jobs, like nursing and firefighting, are told that, in effect, their struggle to keep their financial heads above water is necessary—that moderate wages help us all to be prosperous. Except, that is. the wages of MPs.


Whether an MP can survive on £33,000 a year (and a few years ago an Old Etonian minister resigned because that was not enough “to live in London”. He didn’t then starve to death, if Old Etonians ever do, but organised himself a job with a posh wage) it is in fact only a part of what they get. With various allowances and expenses they can pull in nearer £100,000 a year. Some of this is an allowance to pay a secretary but they often keep this money in the family by giving that job to their partner. Many of them have well paid jobs outside parliament because attendance at Westminster is not compulsory. There aren’t many jobs which pay you for not turning up and it is not difficult to guess how MPs would greet any suggestion that this should apply to nurses, fire-fighters and the rest. Then there are those “consultancies” and “non-executive directorships” and cash and other favours for questions. It all begins to make £33,000 look like the tip of a particularly lucrative iceberg.

It is true that British MPs earn less than those in other countries but parliament is essentially a nationalist organism. The people elected there protect the interests of British capitalism and should not plead that what happens abroad should influence what happens here. If they pursue that argument the MPs may find that other comparisons between them and their foreign counterparts are too embarrassing to be mentioned in the Mother of Parliaments.

Anyone who has observed the behaviour of MPs may well wonder if there is after all something to be said for the argument that lower pay means lower quality. Watching them steer their way across the lobby after a satisfying lunch, or ask sycophantic bogus questions of their Front Bench, or bray and flap their order papers during what they call debates must raise the question of how much worse they could be. And so far no MP has taken the argument to the extent of telling the House that they are an ignorant, boorish buffoon who is not worth listening to but they were the best their constituency party could get for the money.

Market place

Meanwhile MPs will continue to rant on that higher wages for other people must depend on higher productivity (more intense exploitation) and a leaner workforce (more people sacked) while they exclude themselves from these rigorous standards. Parliamentwill remain a place where the rule of the marketplace— which was once supposed to eliminate all our problems—will not apply. After all, the rule of the market place does not allow higher pay for jobs—like MPs— where there are plenty of applicants. There are always Tory hopefuls in places like the Rhondda and always Labour contestants in the South Coast towns. Indeed if the rules of the market place, which so many MPs think should be applied to the rest of us, held good for them there would be an obvious case for reducing what they earn.

It must be said that so far no MP has been stupid enough to suggest they have payment by results. This is just as well because every word they utter, every decision they take, serves to reveal how impotent they are to control capitalism and to keep the promises on which they were elected. For example after nearly 17 years of Conservative government the suffering of poverty is as awful as ever. There has recently been some publicity— as if we needed it—about what poverty does to our diets. The National Children’s Homes see in their family centres nearly half the parents literally starving themselves in order to feed their children. And the government’s own Office of Population, Census and Surveys has recently reached the unsurprising conclusion that death rates are higher among unemployed workers than among those with jobs—that, in other words, poverty kills and the worse the poverty the more it kills.

Facts like these should be remembered when we read about the bogus and hypocritical campaign to raise MPs’ pay. However much they get they won’t be able to control this system. The issue is not what they are paid by what they do and fail to do and—the £33,000 question—why people like those who speak to opinion pollsters put up with it.